LAKE COUNTY -- Stupid me, whenever I think about Cache Creek, I automatically default to “casino.”
I forget that there’s, like, a creek there. And rolling, oak-studded hillsides. And verdant valleys. And, you know, wildlife and stuff.
So, to remind myself that there is life – teeming, vibrant life that doesn’t revolve around a roulette wheel – along the creek that runs through Yolo, Colusa and Lake counties, I decided to locate this month’s “Fresh Tracks” in the area.
The plan was to find a trail that leads to the creek, encompassing all the greenery of the area, not including the green felt of the poker tables. After all, I’d fallen into something of a trail rut recently, dividing time among Lake Tahoe, Auburn and the Bay Area. It felt akin to always playing the same slot machines when you completely ignore the craps table.
Was I ready for something new? You bet.
Turns out, a jackpot of trail heads line highways 16 and 20, and I’d wager that nearly all of them either terminate at or cross Cache Creek. The problem – and it’s a good problem – is deciding which to do.
The Red Bud Trail?
Cache Creek Ridge?
Judge Davis Trail?
Eagle Rocks Loop?
High Bridge Trail?
They all looked attractive and completely doable for hikers and trail runners. But, like a blackjack player paralyzed by indecision on whether or not to hit on 17, I couldn’t choose. It was a bit of a gamble, I know, but I decided to pick the one with most intriguing name. It’s what clueless horse players do when picking an exacta, after all.
So Judge Davis it was. I figured there must be some great back story behind the judge. Maybe I could make the wisecrack that the trail is as crooked as he was.
Exhaustive research (uh, a quick Google search) took me to the Yolo Superior Court website, where visitors could download a PDF of retired Judge James L. Stevens Jr.’s book, “Judges of Yolo County, 1850-1985.”
And there I found a photo of the stern visage of one Isaac E. Davis, sporting an impressive gray beard. He served from 1857-62. Much to my chagrin, he was neither corrupt nor particularly colorful, though it’s curious that he was selected for the bench despite not being an attorney or having “any known legal training.”
Apparently, Isaac moved to Yolo to be closer to his son, Jerome, whose vast ranch holdings extended throughout the county, including what now is Davis and UC Davis. Hence, the origin of the city’s name.
History aside, Google also returned several hits about the trail itself, where it starts, where it leads, what to expect. The best resource was Jordan Summers’ seminal guidebook, “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Sacramento” (Menasha Ridge Press), but I also enjoyed reading other footloose wilderness trekkers’ assessments of the Judge Davis Trail.
A poster named “thetennisguy” on www.trimbleoutdoors.com praises the “Yellow Pine trees and Blue Oaks” and added wild turkeys to the wildlife list. He also warns that “This is not a hike to do in the summer; summer is just too hot.”
Kevin Gong of http://kevingong.com complains about the wind kicking up his allergies and how, a little over a mile into the trek, the trail signs are so confusing that he wound up taking a wrong turn and eventually found himself surrounded by heavy brush.
And Ted Muller of Ted’s Outdoor World ( http://tedmuller.us) obsesses about possible mountain lion sightings and turned back after a mile, saying the trail left him “disenchanted.”
One other interesting Google search note: Seems everybody has a different distance for the out-and-back trail that starts off Highway 20 and finishes along the Cache Creek banks before retracing steps back. Summers in “60 Hikes” says it is 11.5 miles; Yolo Hiker says 10 miles; “El Remaro” says 8.5 miles; http://alltrails.com says 11 miles.
With such disparate accounts, the only thing to do was to judge the Judge Davis Trail for myself.
At least everyone could agree about the location of the trail head. The paved parking area, with pit toilets, is located on the left side of the road exactly 0.10 of a mile after a small sign welcoming you to Lake County. Yolo Hiker also helpfully points out that the trail head comes right after the white post mile marker reading “46.07.”
Once you’re parked, the start of the hike can be confusing, but I felt confident I knew the correct way after reading 20 online dissections of the trail. I can confirm that all the reports telling you not to start on the fire road just to the left of the toilets are absolutely spot-on. That way leads you to another trail; never mind which one. You will want to head to the right, past a sign with an arrow saying only “trail” and go about 25 yards to a dirt trail between two wooden posts.
The trail parallels Highway 20 for only a tenth of a mile before it winds southwest away from civilization. A half-mile in, you will reach a junction with the Cache Creek Ridge Trail veering left. Follow the sign to the right for “Judge Davis.”
That’s when the climbing begins. No one mentioned so much climbing so early in the course. By the time you reach the top of the ridge at the 1.3-mile mark, past some fairly runnable switchbacks, you will have climbed 527 feet. (Only on the return trip, coming downhill over the same terrain, do you notice the lupine and clover stubbornly hanging on even in summer.)
You’ll be ready for a little break by the time you reach the summit of the first ridge (actually, the high point of the entire hike, at 2,227 feet).
You’ll need that break to get your bearings and figure out the confusing signage, as alluded to by the online scribes. The confusion actually begins about 0.2 of a mile before the junction with the Cache Creek Ridge Trail. A fire road suddenly appears on your right. Do not turn right and go up the fire road. Instead, merge with the road and keep following it left. When you reach the Y junction, that’s when you take the trail to the right. It’s confusing because the sign post on the right says “Cache Creek 4 mi.” But if you look closely near the bottom, you’ll notice that a helpful soul has written in small white letters, “JDT.” You will want to head right and downhill toward the creek.
Once assured that you are on the correct trail, it’s mostly rolling downhills to the creek. The terrain is primarily open space, so it gets hot in the summer, and the openness gives the purported mountain lions plenty of opportunity to spot and stalk you. However, there are some spectacular, gnarled manzanita bushes amid the sage and greasewood. You’ll also hit several copses of blue oaks at which you can stop for a respite or picnic.
Because the trail is well groomed and mostly absent of rock gardens, you can be safe in peering down into the gorgeous views of Wilson Valley, but you’ll neither see nor hear Cache Creek until you are less than half a mile from it on an overlook. Summers, in “60 Hikes,” suggests stopping at the creek’s edge near a distinctive foothill pine and waiting for the wildlife to shows itself. Remember, too, that most of the 2,600 feet of elevation gain comes on the return trip. Summers writes of seeing a bald eagle nesting near the creek banks, so that’s worth sitting a spell to see.
No such luck for me. I was lucky to have encountered no mountain lions, but, heck, I didn’t even see a single lizard, newt or turkey vulture. Also, I did have the trail to myself for the two-hour round trip (by the way, my GPS watch measured it at 10.6 miles).
Whatever the distance – 11.5, 8.5, 10 – this trek givers a glimpse of a part of Northern California that many of us never get to see in our haste to try our luck at the gambling den. And the great thing about choosing the Judge Davis Trail over Cache Creek Casino: You’ll only burn calories, not your hard-earned paycheck.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis